Drip-Feed

Eleanor Birne

  • Love by Toni Morrison
    Vintage, 202 pp, £6.99, August 2004, ISBN 0 09 945549 8

Last year I went to the South Bank to hear Toni Morrison read from this novel. The event was sold out many weeks in advance. I got there early and watched the place fill up with middle-aged white women in twin-sets accompanied by teenage daughters in ripped jeans, young black women in groups of three or four in dark business suits or bright headscarves, smart Indian couples and Rasta men, one of them carrying his son on his shoulders. At 7.30 a hush fell on the hall. The organiser gave a short, breathless speech; and then the crowd was up on its feet to watch Toni Morrison glide onto the stage. The audience applauded everything. They applauded when she announced that her son was in the room, and then the son stuck up his hand and the crowd cheered and clapped some more. They fell into a reverent silence when she read a long passage from Love, then leaped back to their feet at the end of it. It was frightening to witness.

I used to be a Toni Morrison fan, too. I once persuaded a librarian to buy all her books and all the criticism I could trace. But there’s been a lull, and a six-year wait for this book, a dense and knotted near-novella. Morrison, who had been an editor, didn’t start writing fiction until she was 40. Her first novel was The Bluest Eye (1970), which begins with a rewriting of the ‘Dick and Jane’ elementary school primers popular in America in the 1940s and 1950s, and expands into a discussion of beauty and race; a girl is raped by her father. Sula (1973) presents diverging pictures of a close-knit community. The fantastical but earthy Song of Solomon (1977) and Tar Baby (1981) came next, but Morrison’s status as prophet was secured by Beloved (1987), which turned the slave narrative skin-crawlingly around: the past, it declared, was harder to escape than we thought. Next was the self-consciously musical Jazz (1992), then the extravagant, overwrought Paradise (1998), which I hoped was a glitch. Love includes something of all Morrison’s big themes: the position of black people in US society; the damage men do to women; the sustaining bonds between women; the power of memory and the impact of the past on the present; the corruption of innocence; redemption. As with many of her previous novels, the story is told from conflicting points of view; there are time shifts.

Love’s central character, Bill Cosey, is dead by the time the novel opens. But his charismatic spirit haunts the book. He ran a hotel and resort that was once ‘the best and best-known vacation spot for coloured folk on the East Coast’; that was back in the 1940s, before the place was ruined by the stench of the canneries and the onset of integration. His old home is now occupied by the women he left behind, two of whom are in love with him. Even a newcomer to the household, Junior, falls for him; since she never met him this calls for impressive powers of persuasion, powers that Morrison would like to have. Each of the women closest to him – L, his friend and the hotel cook; May, his daughter-in-law and dogsbody; Heed, his widow; Christine, his granddaughter – has her own version of the man, and fights to claim him as her own. But we see him chiefly through the eyes of Heed and Christine, who live as enemies in his house. A portrait of him hangs above Heed’s bed.

Christine, expensively educated and angry, had run away from home. When Cosey died she returned after years on the road to claim her inheritance. Heed consented to share the house with her: ‘With very few words they came to an agreement of sorts because May was hopeless, the place filthy, Heed’s arthritis was disabling her hands, and because nobody in town could stand them. So the one who had attended private school kept house while the one who could barely read ruled it.’ Most of the time they keep out of one another’s way, have done so for twenty years, but ‘once – perhaps twice – a year, they punched, grabbed hair, wrestled, bit, slapped.’ The apparent cause of the hostility is Cosey’s ‘will’: doodles on a 1958 menu ‘outlining his whiskey-driven desires’, a just-legible scrawl declaring that his house should go to the ‘sweet Cosey child’. But which was the sweet child, wife or granddaughter? The judge ruled in favour of Heed, but Christine’s lawyer believes she has grounds for reversal on appeal, and she has spent years looking for evidence of a proper will.

Despite the financial quarrel, it’s hard to see why the two women hate each other so intensely. There are slanted, partial glimpses into their past:

Once there was a little girl with white bows on each of her four plaits. She had a bedroom all to herself beneath the attic in a big hotel. Forget-me-nots dotted the wallpaper. Sometimes she let her brand-new friend stay over and they laughed til they hiccuped under the sheets.

Then one day the little girl’s mother came to tell her she would have to leave her bedroom and sleep in a smaller room on another floor. When she asked her mother why, she was told it was for her own protection. There were things she shouldn’t see or hear or know about.

The little girl ran away.

The Bluest Eye began: ‘Here is the house. It is green and white. It has a red door. It is very pretty . . . Here comes a friend. The friend will play with Jane. They will play a good game. Play, Jane, play.’ In Love, the evasiveness is more flamboyant: we’re told that something is being withheld. The little girl Christine ran away – but from what exactly? The answer is revealed two-thirds of the way through the book (there are earlier hints – Heed called her husband ‘Papa’ and ‘was so little she had to stand on a stool’ to shave him): when Bill Cosey took Heed as his wife she was 11 years old and his granddaughter’s best friend. Christine puts it like this: ‘One day we built castles on the beach; next day he sat her in his lap. One day we were playing house under a quilt; next day she slept in his bed. One day we played jacks; the next she was fucking my grandfather.’ On the South Bank, Morrison compared the narrative technique in Love to peeling an onion: you pull back the layers to get to the heart. That’s fine in theory, if a terrible cliché, but the layers come away in little chunks and fragments and it takes patience and concentration and a certain amount of willpower to get there. By the time you do, it’s hard to care any longer.

The book’s slightness is a problem. We are given no more information about the characters than is absolutely necessary. Even Heed and Christine show no signs of life beyond the page. You wonder why Junior is there, except as a device to illuminate the main relationship, a conduit for the revelations. Love comes dangerously close to looking like a creative-writing exercise. Characters tell different versions of the same story. Their pasts are recreated in flashback so that the reader can construct their lives from moments and fragments. Beloved and Jazz are bigger and more generous, maybe more old-fashioned, but more interesting; in Love, Morrison has tried to keep all the grand narrative elements without having anything grand to narrate. The result, a novel by drip-feed, is sterile. There’s no excess, and nothing to spare. Morrison is short of breath.

At the end of the novel the two old women return separately to the derelict hotel. Heed is up in the attic dictating a new will to Junior when Christine arrives. Heed falls through a trapdoor. She lies on the floor, broken: ‘Her bones, fragile from decades of stupor, have splintered like glass.’ Junior, no longer necessary, runs away. She drives home and has sex with her boyfriend, abandoning the two women seven miles from help. The conversation between Heed and Christine, when it finally comes, is spoken as though by one voice. They turn back to their childhood and talk as though they have never been separated. Junior, it turns out, was evil: a horrible visitant, a figure familiar from other Morrison novels, in particular the character of Beloved. Throughout the book she keeps her boots on, in order, we discover, to hide a foot that ‘looked . . . like a hoof’. This is an odd pairing of devices in one person, the narrative eye and the devil: it’s too parsimonious. Her boyfriend, Romen, is a device of another familiar kind: he repudiates Junior’s frozen-heartedness, and goes to rescue the two women.

Thirty-four years have passed since Morrison wrote The Bluest Eye. You might have thought that in that time she’d have added to her repertoire of pre-integrationist family disasters and their terrible legacies, widened the frame of reference and perhaps mentioned what has changed since 1970, but it seems the themes are here to stay. Beloved is a novel full of horror, but it makes sense. In Love, the horror returns – the mangled foot, the creaking, leaky old house – but as gothic, nothing more than the imprint of something that was expanded elsewhere. Love is self-reflexive: it contains sketches, hurried recapitulations, of the detailed portraits of the earlier novels. Morrison is a shaman for her crowds of adoring fans (just listen to that applause). At one point she provided answers for a generation of black women. The Bluest Eye was a redefinition and a recentring, making the margin the heart. They had never had a spokesperson, a leader, like this. There’s something masterful about her, or about her pose. When Junior first arrives in the Cosey household her behaviour hovers, in Christine’s eyes, between a ‘pose’ and an ‘act’. Christine eventually decides that it is an act rather than a pose, something that is worked up but has a genuine impulse. Love is an exercise in mastery, a showcase for practised technique, but Morrison has forgotten how to act.

In retrospect, things began to go wrong with Jazz, in which the rhetoric is whipped up to fine effect – ‘the snow she ran through was so windswept she left no footprints in it’ – but there is a danger of the lyric being lost behind the rhythm. In Love, Junior approaches her destination like this: ‘Ice slick gleamed, then disappeared in the early evening shadow, causing the sidewalks she marched along to undermine even an agile tread, let alone one with a faint limp.’ Here, even the rhythm fails. In an afterword to The Bluest Eye, written in 1993, Morrison said that the effect she had been trying to achieve was the ‘speakerly, aural, colloquial’, the familiar tone of ‘black women conversing with one another, telling a story; an anecdote, gossip about some one or event within the circle, the family, the neighbourhood’. She was telling ‘our’ story and ‘our’ secrets, effecting ‘the public exposure of a private confidence’. This is something she’s lost, or left behind, or forgotten. Public exposure has left her unable to say what privacy sounds like from the inside.